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For Many, Winter is a SAD Season

  • Category: General Health
  • Posted On:
  • Written By: Matt Gougler
For Many, Winter is a SAD Season

For many, winter is the season of snowflakes, hot cocoa and holiday cheer. For some 10-million Americans, however, winter is the season that triggers depression. That's why ATRIO Health Plans is working to raise awareness about a specific type of depression – seasonal affective disorder (SAD) – that sufferers likely won't be able to shake until spring or even summer.

What is SAD

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, SAD is a type of depression that's triggered by seasons of the year. National Institute of Mental Health statistics indicate that women are three times more likely than men to suffer from SAD, and although children and teens can develop SAD, the condition generally does not appear in those under age 20. The symptoms accompanying SAD can significantly impact the suffers' quality of life, and some six percent require hospitalization.

Regarding the underlying causes of SAD, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) points to a biochemical imbalance in the brain prompted by winter's shorter daylight hours and corresponding decreased sunlight. Some scientists have drawn a more-specific link to serotonin, the brain chemical that fuels feelings of satisfaction; serotonin dips precipitously when there is less daylight. Other researchers have connected SAD with melatonin, a sleep-related hormone. The APA notes that melatonin – which has been linked to depression – is produced at increased levels in the dark. Consequently, when the days are shorter and darker, more melatonin is manufactured.

Not surprisingly, there’s also evidence suggesting that the farther someone lives from the equator, the more likely they are to develop SAD.

Symptoms of SAD

It's important to recognize the symptoms of SAD, because there are effective treatments available. If left untreated, SAD can be debilitating, and there's no reason to spend several months of the year suffering unnecessarily.

The first step toward managing SAD is recognizing its symptoms. Toward that end, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offers these indications:

  • feeling fatigued;
  • sleeping excessively;
  • noticing physical problems, such as headaches;
  • withdrawing socially;
  • losing interest in normal activities;
  • craving sweets or foods high in carbohydrates;
  • eating more generally;
  • gaining weight;
  • feeling irritable or anxious;
  • avoiding social situations;
  • experiencing feelings of guilt or hopelessness;
  • finding it difficult to concentrate.

A diagnosis of SAD can be made following two episodes that started and ended at roughly the same time both years, with symptoms not being present outside of those time periods.

Treating SAD

SAD was first identified in the mid-1980s, and since that time, significant strides have been made in terms of treatment.

According to the NAMI, light therapy has proven to be an effective treatment technique. In fact, from 50 percent to 80 percent of those utilizing light therapy experience complete remission of symptoms, although treatment must continue throughout the winter months. Specifically, light therapy involves exposure to very bright light –usually from a special, fluorescent lamp – between 30 and 90 minutes daily. Some SAD sufferers experience additional relief by augmenting light therapy with psychotherapy; and, for others, prescription antidepressants also have proven helpful.

If you feel you're suffering from SAD, it's important to seek the assistance of a trained medical professional. As noted by the APA, SAD can be misdiagnosed as hypothyroidism, hypoglycemia, infectious mononucleosis, as well as assorted other viral infections. Additionally, SAD can be confused with more serious conditions – such as severe depression or bipolar disorder – so the first step is to consult your physician.